Archive for August, 2011

A Not-So-Slow Boat to China

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

While U.S. political figures are wringing their hands about lackluster job creation, transnational corporations are desperately trying to hide their dirty secret: they are expanding their payrolls — just not in the United States.

The Washington Post recently published a front-page story about the fact that fewer and fewer companies are providing a geographic breakdown of their workforce in their annual financial statements, making it more difficult to track their hiring patterns.

They can get away with this because the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require this key bit of information in the mountain of data that publicly traded companies must include in filings such as their 10-K annual reports. Many companies that had chosen to report the breakdown voluntarily in the past are now deciding that the numbers are too sensitive to publish.

As the Post points out, quite a few of the non-reporters are companies that have been lobbying heavily for a special tax break on profits that they have been holding abroad for tax dodging purposes. A corporate front group called WinAmerica is arguing that a repatriation tax holiday would lead to an employment boon in the United States, even though a similar move in 2005 had no such effect.

What the Post article did not mention is that, while companies don’t have to disclose how many of their workers are based overseas, they do have to report how much of their non-financial “long-lived” assets are located abroad. This requirement stems from segment reporting rules established by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The information is usually buried in the notes to the company’s financial statement.

Assets are a reasonable proxy for headcount in assessing the extent to which large U.S. corporations are placing more of their bets on foreign countries such as China and India rather than the US of A.

For a quick case study of asset exporting, I took a look at the financial statements of the publicly traded companies included on the list of supporters on the WinAmerica website. I examined the domestic/foreign split for assets in 2010 and compared it to that of a decade earlier.

Take the five big tech companies on the list: Apple, Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Oracle. From 2005 to 2010 their combined foreign assets grew by 329 percent, a rate more than one-fifth faster than the increase in their domestic assets. The most remarkable increase in foreign assets occurred at Google—a more than tenfold jump to $2.3 billion. Apple’s overseas properties increased fourfold to $710 million.

At some companies the portion of total long-lived assets held abroad is soaring. At Oracle, for instance, the figure last year reached 39 percent, up from 21 percent five years earlier.

High foreign assets levels are not limited to this group of tech giants. Pfizer has 43 percent of its assets outside the United States, Hewlett-Packard 45 percent and IBM has just over half. Even more remarkable is the case of General Electric: its foreign assets total $48.6 billion — nearly three times the $17.6 billion held at home.

GE is one of the dwindling numbers of large companies that provide a geographic breakdown of their workforce. Last year 54 percent of the company’s headcount was foreign-based — up from 42 percent a decade ago. During the ten-year period, GE added 62,000 employees abroad and only 2,000 at home.

Both in terms of their investment practices and their hiring patterns, companies such as GE have to a great extent given up on the United States even as they continue to cook up new schemes for tax breaks that will supposedly spur domestic hiring.

The trend has been long in the making. As early as the 1980s, GE made it clear it viewed itself as a global company not tethered to the U.S. In fact, the CEO at the time, Jack Welch, liked to say that, ideally, factories would be built on barges that could easily be moved from one country to another in quest of the lowest wages and weakest regulation. These days companies like GE don’t even consider docking their barges in the United States.

 

What the Shell?

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

United Nations Environment Program photo of oil contamination in Nigeria.

It seems that the multinational oil giants are taking turns having spills. After BP’s big mess in the Gulf of Mexico last year and Exxon Mobil’s accident in Montana this year, it is now Royal Dutch Shell that is spewing oil where it should not be going.

More than 50,000 gallons have leaked from a Shell pipeline off the coast of Scotland in the worst North Sea oil spill in more than a decade. Shell has had difficulty locating the source of the leak and identifying its cause.

Just as the Exxon Mobil accident could be seen as a warning about the perils of the giant Keystone XL pipeline project extending from Canada to Texas, so can the Shell accident be viewed as a reminder about the dangers of another petroleum initiative: the proposal by Royal Dutch Shell’s U.S. subsidiary, Shell Oil, to begin drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea off the northern coast of Alaska. The North Sea accident occurred only days after the U.S. Interior Department gave Shell conditional approval for the Alaska project.

The gods seem to strike back each time the Obama Administration decides to give a green light to offshore oil activity. BP’s gulf disaster happened only days after Obama opened vast coastal areas to new drilling.

There are countless environmental reasons why Shell’s Alaska initiative is a bad idea. It should also be blocked for another reason: Shell cannot be trusted.

For the past three decades or more, Shell has been involved in a long series of accidents, spills and other mishaps at many of its offshore and onshore facilities around the world. It also has a checkered history with regard to human rights and was implicated in a scandal about false reporting about its oil reserves. Here are some of the more notorious features of the company’s track record, which I compiled for a profile on the Crocodyl wiki:

  • A 1988 explosion at a Shell refinery in Louisiana killed seven workers, whose families sued the company and collected more than $40 million in damages.
  • In 1989 Shell paid $19 million to settle federal charges relating to a spill at its refinery in Martinez, California that the company did not disclose for four weeks.
  • In 1995 Shell agreed to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the California Public Interest Research Group charging that the company had dumped illegal amounts of selenium into San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
  • In 1995 Royal Dutch Shell was also the target of a boycott and other protests in Europe over a plan by the company and its joint venture partner Exxon to sink an obsolete offshore oil storage facility known as Brent Spar in the North Sea rather than dismantling it. Environmental groups, led by Greenpeace, warned that the structure, which contained oil sludge, heavy metals and some low-grade radioactive waste, could damage the food chain for fish in the area. The company gave in the pressure and brought the Brent Spar to shore.
  • In 1998 Shell Oil agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle federal charges that its refinery in Roxanna, Illinois was responsible for illegal discharges of pollutants into the Mississippi River.
  • In 2001 Shell Oil and three other major petroleum companies settled a lawsuit filed in California by agreeing to clean up some 700 sites in the state that had been contaminated by the gasoline additive MTBE.
  • In 2005 Shell was fined £900,000 in connection with the 2003 deaths of two workers on a North Sea oil platform as the result of a major gas leak.
  • In the late 2000s, Royal Dutch Shell found itself facing increasing criticism for its huge liquefied natural gas project on the island of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East. Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, collaborated with Russian activists to form Sakhalin Environment Watch, which challenged the offshore Sakhalin project because it threatened the survival of the world’s most endangered species of whales—Western Pacific Grays. In 2008 the British newspaper The Observer reported that it had obtained dozens of internal e-mails showing that Shell officials in London sought to influence the conclusions of a purportedly independent environmental review of the Sakhalin project.
  • Shell has also been heavily involved in the environmentally disastrous tar sands industry in Canada.

Shell’s tarnished human rights record dates back to the 1980s, when it was targeted for its investments in apartheid-era South Africa. In the early 1990s Shell began to face protests over its oil operations in Nigeria. In 1994 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, then led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, began blockading contractors working on Shell’s facilities to bring attention to the large number of pipeline ruptures, gas flaring and other forms of contamination that were occurring in the Ogoniland region. The group described Shell’s operations as “environmental terrorism.”

The Nigerian government, a partner with Shell in the operations, responded to the protests with a wave of repression, including the arrest of Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995. Shell denied it was involved, but critics pointed to the role played by the company in supporting the military dictatorship. A lawsuit charging Royal Dutch Shell with human rights violations in Nigeria was later filed in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act. In 2009, just before a trial was set to begin, the company announced that as a “humanitarian gesture” it would pay $15.5 million to the plaintiffs to settle the case.

A report recently released by the United Nations Environment Program estimates that a clean-up of oil industry contamination in Ogoniland will cost at least $1 billion and take up to 30 years.

On its corporate website, Shell insists that “we are qualified to do the job right — to explore for offshore oil and gas in Alaska in a very safe and careful way.” On the Other Earth, perhaps. But not on this one.

Striking Back at Verizon

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

As the U.S. economy teeters, most politicians and mainstream analysts have nothing to offer but the usual counter-productive agenda of reduced public spending, corporate tax cuts and weakening of government regulation of business.

Some of the only helpful initiatives are coming from an institution that much of the American public has been taught to despise: labor unions, especially aggressive ones like the Communications Workers of America.

The strike recently launched by CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers against telecom giant Verizon Communications has significance that goes far beyond the terms of their contract negotiations. It is one of the only arenas in which an effort is being made to shore up rather than erode the living standards of American workers—living standards that are supposed to be the backbone of an economy that we are constantly told is based on consumer spending. Also adding to the importance of the walkout is that it is targeting an employer that is emblematic of much that is wrong with corporate America today.

That starts with the evolution of the company. Verizon started out as Bell Atlantic, one of the regional operating companies, or Baby Bells, that resulted from the 1984 dismantling of the old AT&T monopoly. Taking apart Ma Bell was supposed to beget a new era of competition in the telephone business, but instead, some of the stronger Baby Bells focused on acquiring their rivals. Bell Atlantic took over NYNEX in 1997, and a few years later it bought the large non-Bell local phone company GTE. Seeking to downplay its origins, the combined corporation adopted the portmanteau name Verizon, a combination of “veritas,” the Latin word for truth, and “horizon.”

Verizon is now one of two firms that dominate traditional phone service in the United States. The other is the new AT&T, the name taken by the other voracious former Baby Bell, SBC Communications, in 2005. In the end, the dismantling of Ma Bell simply replaced a monopoly with a duopoly.

This concentration of ownership has carried over into the wireless realm, which in the U.S. is now largely controlled by subsidiaries of Verizon and AT&T (Verizon Wireless is a joint venture with Britain’s Vodafone, which owns 45 percent).

Verizon has compounded the negative effects of its bloated market share by fighting the extension of union rights to its wireless operation. From the end of the Second World War to its break-up, the Bell System was strongly unionized, and phone company jobs were among the most secure and best-paying blue-collar positions in the private sector. Things became more contentious after the creation of the Baby Bells—there were widespread strikes in 1989 over company attempts to curtail healthcare benefits—but workers in the core wireline business retained their union protections.

Workers at Verizon Wireless, on the other hand, have been struggling for the past decade to achieve such protections. The company has employed all the usual dirty tricks of union-busting, including surveillance, misinformation and intimidation of activists. As American Rights at Work noted in a 2007 report, Verizon also shut down call centers where organizing was taking place and moved the operations to states with anti-union “right-to-work” laws. The National Labor Relations Board found the company guilty of violating federal labor law for disciplining a worker for union organizing.

Rather than improving working conditions at Verizon Wireless, Verizon seems intent on lowering those in its wireline business. The current strike was prompted by management demands for a long list of major contract concessions concerning pensions, sick leave, healthcare and job security. Verizon also wants to tie wages more closely to individual job performance, an arrangement that is typical of non-union workplaces. CWA and IBEW are accurately charging the company with trying to undo half a century of advances in worker rights.

Verizon’s position should be seen as an assault not only on its 45,000 unionized employees but on the entire economy. If management gets its way, some people will find themselves transferring from Verizon’s payroll to the unemployment rolls, and those who remain would have less disposable income.

Its labor practices are not the only way Verizon harms the economy. As Citizens for Tax Justice points out, Verizon is among those large companies that find ways to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. For the past two years, its federal tax rate has been negative, meaning that it is getting rebates from the Treasury—totaling more than $1 billion—despite enjoying profits of more than $10 billion in each of those years.

Verizon also plays the tax avoidance game at the state and local level. For example, it has received tens of millions in subsidies in New Jersey, and last year it pressured authorities in New York to award it more than $500 million in property tax abatements and other tax breaks for a data center it was planning to build near Niagara Falls. This was on top of $96 million in electricity subsidies. The company cancelled the plan after a lawsuit was filed by a local resident.

In addition to mistreating workers and taxpayers, Verizon has apparently found time to cheat its customers. Last year, Verizon Wireless had to pay a record $25 million to settle Federal Communications Commission charges that it charged 15 million cell phone customers unauthorized fees. The company also agreed to provide $52 million in refunds.

A sign seen on a picket line reads: VERIZON IS KILLING MIDDLE CLASS AMERICA. If this strike is successful, it will send a strong message to all corporate assassins that U.S. workers will not roll over and die.

Does the Debt Deal Make You Sick?

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Sinking stock markets are not the only sign that the eleventh-hour debt ceiling deal was the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

The announcement by Cargill that it is recalling an astounding 36 million pounds of salmonella-tainted ground turkey products is a perfect symbol of the hazards of shrinking government.

During the debt ceiling debate, Democrats frequently portrayed themselves as defenders of social insurance programs such as Medicare and Social Security. That’s all well and good, but their willingness to go along with substantial cuts to the budgets of federal agencies can also have serious consequences.

Among those agencies are the Food and Drug Administration, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the Department of Agriculture. FSIS is responsible for protecting the public from illness caused by tainted meat, poultry and egg products. FDA oversees safety issues for other food groups.

These agencies should be sacred cows, so to speak, but many of the anti-government yahoos now in Congress seem to view food safety regulations as an encroachment on the free market and personal liberty. Even before the new debt deal, this function was being targeted.

Last year, in the wake of incidents involving widespread contamination of eggs, peanut butter and spinach, Congress tightened food safety regulation and gave more authority to the FDA. The agency was finally given the power to issue mandatory recalls rather than depending on producers to withdraw dangerous products voluntarily. As soon as the law passed, rightwingers were moving to undermine it.

In December, Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, then the ranking member and now the chair of the appropriations committee overseeing the FDA, said that the number of food-borne illnesses in the country did not justify the cost of the new law. Kingston, whose website bio brags that he has “fought to lower taxes, balance the budget, and reduce government interference in our lives,” criticized the legislation as “overreach” and vowed to cut food safety spending to make it difficult to implement the new rules.

Kingston and his colleagues made good on that threat in June, when the Republican majority in the House voted to cut $87 million from the FDA budget and $35 million from FSIS.

The rightwing effort to eviscerate federal food regulation is justified with the assumption that corporate food producers are willing and able to monitor themselves. This assumption perseveres despite the dismal track record of the industry.

Take Cargill. Its current turkey problem is far from an anomaly for the company. Over the past decade or so, it has been involved in a series of recalls in its meat and poultry operations such as the following:

  • August 2010: recalled 8,500 pounds of ground beef after an outbreak of a rare strain of E.coli bacteria was traced to a company plant in Pennsylvania.
  • December 2009: subsidiary Beef Packers Inc. recalled 22,000 pounds of ground beef after an investigation of salmonella was traced to a company distribution center in Arizona.
  • October 2009: recalled 5,500 pounds of beef tongues because the tonsils may not have been completely removed, leaving in tissue that raises the risk of “mad cow” disease.
  • November 2007: recalled more than 1 million pounds of ground beef suspected of being tainted with E.coli.
  • April 2004: subsidiary Excel recalled 45,000 pounds of ground beef suspected of being tainted with E.coli.
  • October 2002: recalled 2.8 million pounds of ground beef suspected of being tainted with E.coli.
  • December 2000: recalled more than 16 million pounds of packaged poultry linked to an outbreak of listeria.

And this is the dismal record of an industry leader with more than $100 billion in annual revenues, not a fly-by-night operator without the resources to maintain decent standards in its operations.

Rep. Kingston likes to declare that the U.S. food supply is “99.99 percent safe.” That apparently fabricated figure does not change the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 48 million Americans are sickened by tainted food each year, of whom 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Debates over the proper levels of federal spending and regulation are typically framed in abstractions, but they can become a matter of survival. When Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death,” I doubt he meant he would give his life for the right of a giant corporation to sell contaminated food without government interference.